NEW YORK — Natasa Babic often teaches three yoga classes on Thursdays at three different locations for three different employers. Her day starts at 6 a.m. and ends after 9 p.m. In between, she is teaching, going back and forth on the subway, preparing classes and researching techniques.
For her work, Babic, 37, earns $175. She doesn’t get health insurance, doesn’t get overtime and her teaching slots are not guaranteed.
So when teachers at YogaWorks, where she teaches six classes a week, began talking about forming a union, Babic was interested.
As the multibillion-dollar yoga industry continues to expand, instructors guiding students toward serenity from the front of the studios are beginning to speak out — demanding more pay, benefits and job security. Some are also criticizing what they see as too much emphasis on physical fitness over spiritualism.
On Monday, union officials and teachers at the New York locations of YogaWorks, a popular nationwide chain controlled by a private equity firm, asked the company to recognize a union that would appear to be the first in the United States to include yoga instructors.
In response, a YogaWorks official sent an email addressed to the New York teachers and trainers, painting the union as an untrustworthy group looking to collect dues from workers.
The email, from Heather Eary, a regional vice president for YogaWorks, ended in all capital letters: “DON’T SIGN A CARD.” The line was referring to cards being circulated by teachers and by the union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, saying the signatory would want the group to represent them
“YogaWorks does not believe that employees joining — and paying dues to — a union is in the best interest of YogaWorks, our employees or our students,” the message said. “We are surprised that the Machinists union would ask us to help them possibly take away your right to decide whether you want join them.”
“Our offer to work in collaboration with the company still stands,” said David DiMaria, an organizer with the union. “Hopefully they see past their original reaction.”
Carla Gatza, the head of human resources for YogaWorks, said in an email that management respects the right of teachers and trainers to “engage in, or refrain from, union organizing” but “believes that our company, our employees, and our students are best served when YogaWorks and its employees work together without the interference of a third party union.”
Yoga has traditionally sought to unite the mind, body and spirit in an effort to achieve a feeling of serenity and a connection to oneself and the world. But during the past decade or so, many teachers say, studios have become increasingly commercialized.
YogaWorks, which began as a single studio in Southern California in the 1980s and is now one of the largest yoga chains in the country with around 60 locations, is seen by some teachers as emblematic of that shift.
In certain ways teaching yoga may seem like a dream job — a way to earn money while staying healthy and helping others. But yoga teachers say that their work can be filled with the type of stress that the practice is meant to alleviate.
Many, experts say, are participants in the so-called gig economy, where companies employ nonpermanent workers and do not have to contribute to unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation, or heed minimum-wage and overtime laws.
Most YogaWorks teachers are something of a hybrid, classified as employees but given only part-time work with little or no job security, organizers said. And many of those teachers also do “gig work” as independent contractors for other employers. The effect, multiple instructors said, can be exhausting, with teachers constantly scrambling to make ends meet, competing for work and spending unpaid hours preparing for sessions.
Still, several teachers said, they stick with their classes because they enjoy their jobs and they believe in the ability of yoga to improve lives.
“I love when people have some kind of realization, or feel a part of their body they weren’t able to feel before, when something just clicks,” Markella Los, a YogaWorks instructor and an early union organizer, said.
The aim of forming a union, several teachers said, is to negotiate over making pay rates transparent, creating standards for raises, obtaining benefits and job security, and asking that teachers have a voice in ensuring that classes preserve values intrinsic to yoga.
“They often say the yoga teachers are the center of this business,” Tamar Samir, who has taken part in the unionization effort, said of the company’s leaders. “But then somehow the way that teachers are supported in terms of pay and benefits and job security doesn’t match that.”
The union that the teachers are trying to form with the Machinists would include about 100 instructors said to work regularly at the company’s four New York locations.
Teachers and union officials said they want the organizing in New York to serve as a model for efforts at studios throughout the country, including at YogaWorks’ other locations in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.
An instructor at CorePower, the country’s largest yoga studio chain with 200 locations in more than 20 states, previously advocated for starting a union there and earlier this year introduced some YogaWorks teachers to Machinists union officials.
The unionization effort comes as the number of people in the United States who practice yoga has been growing. A study by the Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance said that the number of yoga practitioners in the country has risen to 36 million in 2016, from 20.4 million in 2012, and spending — on clothes, equipment, classes — has also increased, to $16 billion from $10 billion over the same period.
The study also said there were two teacher trainees for every existing teacher.
Teachers at YogaWorks said that has given employers leverage and often put workers in the position of taking on whatever classes they can get or working for low wages or no pay at all to get a foot in the door at a studio.
Those issues are not restricted to any one studio. CorePower has faced federal labor lawsuits. More than 1,500 teachers have said in a recent suit that the company pays them less than minimum wage because of the amount of off-the-clock work they are required to do.
CorePower has said it believes that lawsuit is “without merit.”
Pay within YogaWorks can vary from about $35 to $100 or more to teach classes of 45-90 minutes, teachers said, with no apparent correlation between pay and class duration. It is not clear how to qualify for a raise or ask for one, they said, adding that it is also unclear how classes are allocated.
“Some people get raises and some people don’t, some people get new classes on the schedule and some people don’t,” said Jess Blake, who has been teaching at YogaWorks for more than eight years. “There’s no transparency so we’re just left to guess at what the process is.”
Some teachers also said they would like more of a say in how classes are structured to ensure an emphasis on mindfulness or what one teacher, Nora Heilmann, called its “core values.”
Lucie Kim, a student leaving YogaWorks’ Soho location on Monday, said she thought a union would give the teachers a greater voice and in turn give a greater voice to students.
“They are more interested in us than the studio or the corporation behind it,” Kim said.
Jay Smirnov, who said he was a regular at the YogaWorks location on the Upper East Side, said Tuesday that if he began to feel the company was exploiting its instructors, he would stop going.
He said he knew instructors who had quit their previous jobs “only to find out when you become a yoga instructor you’re barely making 20 dollars an hour, and you’re really scavenging to do it.”
“It hasn’t turned into a career, it’s more turned into a side gig,” Smirnov said, “because you can’t put food on the table.”